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Asturias: Spain's Best Kept Secret

Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Two weekends ago I took a spontaneous trip to northern Spain, desperate to see the ocean and surround myself with some much-needed greenery. Although I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the north, the region of Asturias completely took my breath away. 

On Friday we began our road trip up north, making a pit stop in Rueda to do some wine tasting along the way. (Man, road tripping in Spain is rough.) Once we finally hit Asturias, we settled into our darling condo in Santa María del Mar and walked down to the beach. I just about cried when I first saw the ocean from our condo's balcony. This is the first time I haven't lived near water, and as much as I love Madrid, I can't stand being so far away from the ocean. After nine land-locked months of living in Madrid, my soul was beginning to feel dehydrated. Something was clearly missing. Those nagging ocean-withdrawals instantly went away as soon as I set eyes on the Bay of Biscay, beautifully surrounded by lush mountains, rocky cliffs and emerald forests.

Cabo de Peñas

After sipping several tinto de veranos by the beach while soaking up the sun, we ventured to Cabo de Peñas to explore its majestic cliffs. Located on the northernmost point of Asturias, the views of the cliffs and the Bay of Biscay were absolutely sublime. I could have admired the scenery for hours, but after braving the windy streets of Gozón we were ready for a sweet treat. We headed to Luanco, a charming fishing village with colorful buildings and gorgeous ocean vistas. The region of Asturias is well known for its dairy products, and there's a hole-in-the-wall ice cream shop in Luanco that supposedly has the best ice cream in the region. I ordered the turrón flavor paired with arroz con leche, and I just about died of happiness.

The quaint streets of Luanco
Arroz con leche and turrón ice cream - a top contender for the best ice cream I've ever had!

The next day, eager to burn off the calories we consumed after eating obscene amounts of delicious ice cream, we embarked on a grand kayaking adventure with Astur Aventura. Despite canoeing canoozing many times throughout college, I'd never actually kayaked before. This will be a breeze, I nonchalantly thought to myself. FALSE. After our 12 kilometer trek down the Río Sella, I thought my arms were going to fall off. But the pain was undoubtedly worth it, because kayaking through the Asturian countryside was one of the most fun things I've done all year. Not only was the adventure within itself thrilling, but I felt so fulfilled being surrounded by such breathtaking nature. 

I love the outdoors, but I'm severely athletically challenged. I was always the worst player on my soccer, basketball and volleyball teams, and I've always been the weakest link when it comes to any sort of recreational athletics. Hence, why I opted to be a newspaper editor instead of doing sports back in high school. God bless my poor friend who got stuck with me and had to teach me Kayaking 101. ("Courtney, you can't put your pinky out when you're rowing!" This isn't tea time!)

We conquered the Río Sella after 12 km of kayaking
All kayaking pictures thanks to Jen, who bravely brought her phone along!

Exhilarated yet exhausted from our kayaking adventure, we continued our journey though the north and headed to Covadonga - by far my favorite place in Asturias. Covadonga is a sanctuary nestled in the Picos de Europa mountains, boasting a stunning cathedral and incredible lakes, caves and chapels. Covadonga is one of the most historically significant places in Asturias, for it was here that the Christians won an important battle against the Muslims in the year 722. I was blown away by Covadonga's surreal beauty and enchanting surroundings.

La Basílica de Santa María la Real in Covadonga

I suppose what made me fall so madly in love with Asturias was its striking similarity to the Pacific Northwest. The mountains, trees, rivers and seas were all too familiar, making me feel right at home. The entire weekend I was euphoric, zealously proclaiming how beautiful our surroundings were. Next year I'd love to go back to Asturias to explore Oviedo and Gijón - but I'll save that trip for when I'm feeling particularly homesick!

The beach next to our condo in Santa María del Mar

My Asturias Picks:
Favorite Beaches: Salinas and Santa María del Mar
Best Views: Cabo de Peñas
Favorite Activity: Kayaking down the Río Sella with Astur Aventura
Best Hidden Gem: Covadonga
Favorite Restaurant: Tierra Astur
Must-Try Dishes: Fabada, cider and Cabrales cheese

Linking up for Travel Tuesday today!

3 Things I've Learned From My Students in Spain

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Draw me a pink heart", Ana demanded with a charming toothless grin that I simply couldn't say no to. I drew her name in bubble letters just to provoke another goofy seven year old smile. We were killing time after standardized testing, and I was in charge of babysitting the 2nd graders while the other students finished their exams.

"Now draw me a blue heart and write Adrián's name next to it", she mandated in Spanish. "Why Adrián's name?" I asked. "Porque es mi novio." Because he's my boyfriend. Like, duuuhhh. For the rest of the afternoon, Ana pranced around the room proclaiming her love for Adrián. While I personally prefer not to shout my romantic interests from a mountaintop, I couldn't help but admire how shamelessly honest she was.

Meanwhile after about 40 minutes of play time, many of the 2nd graders began to tearfully lament to one another, "I'm mad at you, because you won't share your crayons with me", "Leave me alone, you're bothering me", and "I'm sad, why don't you want to build a castle with me?" Although mollifying the madness was thoroughly exhausting, the whole scene made me think: When was the last time I personally confronted someone who I was upset with?

Though the tears and tantrums get old fast, kids feel every emotion to the fullest and have no reservations about expressing how they truly feel. They're unabashedly honest. They're not like the repressed adults I know who are trained to say, "I'm fine" even when they're going through the most difficult of personal traumas. Kids don't lie or hide from their emotions, and I've come to realize that we could all learn something from their refreshing, no-bullshit approach to expressing feelings.

Watching my students make heartfelt drawings for each other always makes me smile.

I get up at 6:40 am every single day. If you know me at all, you probably know that I am not a morning person. This usually means that I come to school with no makeup and my hair messy from a slept-in braid. Yet even on those days when I could pass as a homeless person, I'm constantly showered with compliments: "Teacher, you are beautiful!", "Teacher, you look very pretty today!", "¡Qué guapa eres, Teacher!" Children, are you blind?

And when they're not complimenting me, they're giving me drawings, hugs, crafts, rubber band bracelets... you name it. I don't deserve these tokens of their affection; I'm not even their real teacher, I'm just an assistant! Regardless, they spoil me with love, gifts and odds-and-ends that I'll never bring myself to throw away. It melts my heart.

I suppose they go out of their way to make me these things because it's their way of saying, "I love and appreciate you." It reminds me that I don't do this enough for the people that I love and appreciate. Even though I think about my friends back home all the time, I hardly ever remember to send them letters, postcards, long emails or birthday cards. I could blame it on being busy, or I could blame it on the ease of Facebook. But the truth is, us grown-ups don't make thoughtfulness a norm like kids do.

My friend Meghan always remembers to send birthday cards, Christmas cards, thank you cards, and even Valentine's Day cards. (And she has great taste in stationary, so her cards are always really pretty and stay on my shelves for years.) Every time I receive one in the mail, I get all excited and giddy - much like how I feel when my students randomly give me drawings, cards and bracelets. I want to be like Meghan and my students, who spread joy by simply being thoughtful.

Just a few of the trinkets that my students have gifted me this year.

It's kind of ironic that I'm writing about this, because as an assistant teacher it's partially my responsibility to discipline my students. I have to reprimand them when they're eating paste or drawing on their faces with permanent markers, and I often spend an average of 10 minutes per class (or more) trying to get them to stop screaming, taking off their shirts, and rolling around on the floor. (Did I mention that I'm specifically talking about my 8 and 9 year olds...?)

Nevertheless, while my 3rd graders can be wild animals when they want to be, they can also be pretty freaking brilliant. They call me out when I'm not consistent. They ask me, "But Teacher, why are we doing this?" when it's a filler (aka "time-waster") activity that's completely irrelevant to what they're learning. They catch on. And they're bold.

The other week in art class, we were crafting a sheep out of paper and cotton swabs. I showed them the Pinterest example on the white board, instructed them on how to construct the sheep, and started tying little red bows for their sheep heads. Art class was almost over when one of my favorite students - a shy kid in the back of the class who's always well behaved - comes up to me and presents me his sheep. Except it wasn't a sheep, it was a tiger.

Who does that? What third grader is assigned an art project to make a sheep and thinks instead, "Screw that, I'm going to make a tiger!" I could hardly contain the grin on my face. I would have never seen it coming from this darling little underdog, but I admired the hell out of him. I think there's something to be valued in those who think out-of-the-box, even when it means bucking the system. Why not make a tiger?

Dare to be different, folks.

While being an assistant English teacher isn't the most glamorous job, it's certainly been one of the most rewarding. I can't wait to teach at my same school next year and continue learning from these adorable kiddos.

Have you learned any life lessons from teaching or being around kids?

My Hunt for the Best Coffee in Madrid

Monday, June 9, 2014
My Hunt for the Best Coffee in Madrid

Have you ever played that cheesy icebreaker game where you have to introduce yourself using an adjective that starts with the same letter as your name? Church camps and extracurriculars were almost always prefaced with endless spiels of, "I'm Talkative Tom!" and "I'm Shy Sally!" Every time it was my turn to spout off a cliched alliteration, I'd without fail say, "I'm Coffee-Addict Courtney."

During my senior year of high school, my AP Spanish class even tried to stage an informal intervention for me. For a span of several weeks, I would receive anonymous notes on my desk pleading, "We're worried about your addiction" and "Seek help now". Fast forward six years later, and I have yet to kick my bad habit. After countless attempts to give it up, I've realized that life is truly more joyful with java. Plus, what kind of expat would I be if I couldn't enjoy a steaming café con leche in a bustling plaza or charming Spanish café? Certainly not one I'd want to hang out with.

I'm always a happy camper when I have a cortado in hand

I'm no coffee expert, but I am a Seattleite. I like my coffee a certain way, and when it fails to meet my expectations, I refuse to drink it grumble and reluctantly still chug it because I'm an addict, remember?  I don't like to dwell on this country's flaws, but I have to be honest here: Spain has a lot of bad coffee. I often have to resist the urge to plug my nose whilst downing my daily dose of caffeine. (For the most part, this is due to a little thing called torrefacto.)

But don't let that discourage you, for Madrid still has plenty of cafés that serve a quality cup o' joe. After an extensive pilgrimage, here are my top 3 contenders for the best coffee in Madrid:

Toma Café
Calle de la Palma, 49
Metro: Noviciado, Tribunal

I'm just going to come out and say it: Toma has the best coffee I've ever tasted in Spain. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Toma could quite possibly serve my favorite coffee ever. Order their café con leche and you'll understand what I'm talking about. Their staff is the friendliest bunch of baristas I've encountered in Madrid, and they always offer a delectable assortment of gluten-free treats. It takes a lot of self-control to avoid coming here multiple times per day.

Enjoying a café con leche from Toma on my balcony

La Bicicleta
Plaza de San Ildefonso, 9
Metro: Tribunal

This cozy coffee shop gets its name from the vintage bicycles and charmingly mismatched furniture adorning the restaurant. The café blasts indie classics from Vampire Weekend and The Shins while local hipsters, savvy expats and trendy bloggers sip their piping hot cortados. However, it isn't just the ambiance that has won me over, for their first-rate java is positively addicting.

Federal Café
Plaza de las Comendadoras, 9
Metro: Noviciado, San Bernardo

Not only does Federal make a mean café con leche, but their brunch is arguably the best in Madrid. Their avocado and feta toasts, breakfast burgers, cortados and chai lattes keep me coming back almost every weekend. They also offer almond milk with their coffee (a blessing for us lactose-intolerant folk), and their gluten-free options are abounding. It's a win-win.

A homage to Federal via Instagram

What's the best coffee you've had in Madrid? 
Do you have any other recommendations? I'm all ears!

Snapshots of Schönbrunn Palace

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

My pictures don't even begin to do this palace justice. Boasting extravagant interiors and lush gardens, Schönbrunn Palace gives Versailles a run for its money. This regal estate was by far my favorite place in Vienna. My mom and I loved it here so much, we visited it twice! On our first visit, we toured the lavish royal apartments and wandered through the colorful Easter market. We came back on Easter Sunday to spend more time exploring the sprawling gardens and soak up the spring sunshine. 

Out of all of the royal palaces I've seen, Schönbrunn Palace is truly one of the most breathtaking. If your travels bring you to Vienna, I highly recommend this château as your number one destination! 

How to Get to Schönbrunn Palace:
Take the U-Bahn Line 4 (U4) to Schönbrunn station
Alternatives: Take Bus 10A or Trams 10 & 58 to Schloß Schönbrunn
Be sure to buy your tickets in advance here if you plan on visiting during high season!

Linking up for Travel Tuesday today!

What's Next?

Monday, June 2, 2014
Happy June! It's hard to believe that I've lived in Spain for almost nine months already. Time has gone by way too quickly since Christmas, and I can't even begin to fathom how it's almost summer. How did that happen? After my trip to Germany in early May, I decided to take a break from traveling so I could enjoy more of what Madrid has to offer. After constantly being on the go, I was beginning to feel homesick for this city! Since then, I've been tapas crawling, enjoying picnics in the park, discovering new restaurants and rooftop bars, becoming a bandwagon Real Madrid fan, exploring different neighborhoods and going on epic adventures with my fellow expat friends. Every weekend seems to be more fun than the last, and my steadfast love affair with Madrid has yet to subside.  

But naturally I can't stay in one place for too long, so here's what's on my summer agenda:

I'm going to Greece!  I'll be spending 11 days in Athens, Crete and Santorini with my friend Jen in July. I couldn't be more excited to lounge on the beach, explore the picturesque hillsides and eat delicious Greek salads every day. So if you have any Greece travel tips to share, please send them my way! We're looking for all the advice we can get.

After spending a week and a half in paradise, I'm heading back home to Seattle for the summer. I'm beyond thrilled to spend two whole months going on Whole Foods shopping sprees, cuddling with my cats Tucker and Oliver (aka Chairman Meow and Kitty Purry), overdosing on brunch at Portage Bay Café, and hanging out with my fabulous family & friends. I'll also be spending a week in Arizona visiting my mom and trying not to melt. But as long as there's a pool and In-N-Out Burger, I can't complain.

Until then, I'll be watching and rewatching this amazing timelapse video of my gorgeous city:

Seattle Dream Pt. II by F-Stop Seattle. Makes me cry every time.

Once mid-September hits, I'm off to Madrid again for a second year of teaching English through the Auxiliares de Conversación program. While they sometimes drive me crazy, I can't bear the thought of leaving my adorable students - so I'll be staying at my same school in Galapagar. While I'm excited for Round Two of teaching, I'm particularly thankful for the opportunity to stay in Madrid another year. I'm not ready to say goodbye to this place anytime soon.
I plan on focusing my 2014-2015 travels more on Spain, for there are still so many parts of this beautiful country that I have yet to discover. Awhile back I posted this 2014 Spain Bucket List, and I hope to hit many of those spots next year! But I can't ignore the rest of Europe completely, so I'm also hoping to travel to Istanbul, Dubrovnik, Copenhagen and possibly Iceland or the south of France. Who wants to come with me?

I can't wait to share my upcoming adventures with all of you, and feel free to follow along on Instagram (@courtneylikkel) and Twitter!